Monday, January 15, 2018

There is no more radical idea than this in the entire Bible.

The trouble I've been having with my eyes has made me pause in typing out passages from Walter Brueggemann's book, The Bible Makes Sense, but it's eased a bit and I will continue now. 

Still from Chapter 6:

At Once a Human Task and God's Work

These texts set conversion as a human task and so it surely is.  But the Bible is also realistic about what human persons are able to do by will power.  It knows that we get so enmeshed in habit and vested interest that we cannot change even if we will to.  As Israel's history moves toward exile,  her poets become aware that Israel is unable to repent (Jeremiah 13:23, cf. Romans 7:19-24).  

Jeremiah 13:23
23 Can Ethiopians change their skin
    or leopards their spots?
Then also you can do good
    who are accustomed to do evil.

[I'm sure this will be opportunistically misread so I will point out that it is saying that just as a person's skin color or an animals markings can't be changed the human tendency, temptation or, if you insist on making it a question of biology "instinct" to do evil might not ever be changed in any of us BUT UNLIKE PERMANENT CONDITIONS WE CAN CHOOSE TO ACT AGAINST THAT CHANGE. The analogy with skin color or an animals markings points the permanence of the temptation not that skin color is any sign of moral character.  And it asserts that unlike the innocuous permanence of our skin, the moral nature of people can be changed if we choose to do change. Though that metaphor can be used to assert evil by those who choose to act in accordance with the human inclination to do evil unless we choose not to, religious metaphor is hardly the only kind that can be used that way.  I have written about the lavish use of scientific metaphors and metaphors mistaken as fact to do so over and over again, but the texts used that way don't carry a claim that we can use them for good.] 

Romans 7:19-24
19 For I do not do the good I want, 
but the evil I do not want is what I do. 
20 Now if I do what I do not want, 
it is no longer I that do it, 
but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

The texts are no less interested in and concerned for conversion than the older voices of the tradition.  But we know it must come another way.  If there is to be newness, it must have another source.  So we may note two remarkable suggestions in this regard.  

First, Ezekiel has a fresh idea.  He lived in a period of keen discouragement in the exile when no future seemed possible.  He called for repentance in vigorous ways (cf.  Ezekiel 18)  but he knew it was not possible.  And so he describes the LORD as prepared to take a radical step,  to give Israel new organs of decision-making which could replace the old ones which have now become dysfunctional. 

And I will give them a new heart, and put a new spirit within them;  I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh,  so they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them;  and they shall be my people and I will be their god (Ezekiel 11:19-20).

A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh (36:26 cf. 18:31:14).  

The covenant depends now not on the turning of Israel but the gift of a new possibility worked by the LORD himself.  When the old organ fails, an organ transplant is envisioned.  Thus conversion is not only a work required by God's people, but it is a work of God who freshly equips his people for a reorientation .  Conversion is possible because God empowers it. 

Second and even more radical,  when there is a dysfunction between the LORD and his people and a fracture is unavoidable, when Israel is called to repent and cannot,  the LORD himself repents.  There is no more radical idea than this in the entire Bible.  God is presented not primarily as all-knowing, all-powerful but as a covenant partner who freely makes intervention and fresh decision toward his covenant partner who in his faithful compassion can act in various ways to renew and transform.  The radical announcement of the Bible is that God himself is converted on behalf of his people.  

Hosea expressed this most poignantly.  After a sharp and abrasive reprimand to his people in Hosea 11:1-7,  there seems no way out.  The covenant is over, Israel is so turned form the LORD that she is unwilling, even incapable, of returning to covenant.  But God so wills the relation that he acts.  He is converted to a new way:

My heart recoils within me, 
my compassion grows warm and tender, 
I will not execute my fierce anger, 
I will not again destroy Epharim,
for I am God and not man, 
the Holy One in your midst, 
and I will not come to destroy (Hosea 11:8-9)His “godness” consists not in remote indifference but in compassionate freedom to sustain his relation with his people.

In Amos the same note is sounded.  Amos prays to the LORD on behalf of Israel, interceding that he not act in his justifiable wrath against Israel.  And he is moved by the prayer:

The LORD repented concerning this
“It shall not be,”  said the LORD (7:3, 6)

The narrative of Jonah is parallel:

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them;  and he did not do it (Jonah 3:10).  

This verse expresses a double conversion,  Nineveh to God and God to Nineveh.  The notion of the LORD's capacity to repent affirms both his deep compassion but also his extra-ordinary freedom to act according to his purposes and not according to any preordained rule or stereotype.  Such a motif suggests to us the profoundly covenantal and deeply personal character of the LORD.  He is not like any other god in the world, ancient or modern.  And he will not fit conventional religious notions.  He wills covenant.  He insists on his people turning to him, but he asks nothing of them that he himself will not do.  He turns to his people.  He is radically for his people.  And it is in his turning that makes their turning possible.  Such a surprising notion of God yields a remarkable understanding of humanness,  for we are “made in his image.”  It announces that our mature humanness consists in the capacity to repent, in our willingness to care so deeply and to change so freely that we can make vows and keep them.  In our doing this, we are most like the God who has created us and continually calls us to himself.

In the point from the story of Jonah, there is a real chance to see how a superficial, "literal" reading of these books, a reading of them as if they are books of history or science in the way we're taught to read everything in this materialistic-scientistic, industrial-mechanistic culture, we don't begin to understand the texts, why they were written, the reason they were written as they were instead of as a modern historical-scientific discourse instead of a book to assert these radical claims about the radically good character of the GOD they were teaching. 

I will bet you that if you asked 100,000  or a million high school-college educated Americans or Brits what the story of Jonah was about, a large majority of those who knew anything about it would tell you about him being swallowed by the "big fish" and spat up on the shore, if they even knew that much about it.  I'll bet that even those who had read it would have missed what Brueggemann points out about the incredibly radical claims about the nature of God and the possibilities of people contained in it if you read it on terms closer to its own than those of 18th century European "enlightenment" thought.  There was a reason that The REVEREND Martin Luther King jr. made such constant referrals to the Prophets of Israel, over and over again.  And it didn't have much to do with the fish story or the historical fables and, yes, accounts, that these radical assertions about morality are embedded in and claimed through.

Since the motivation for me starting to go through this book was reading the reviews of that Bible Museum they opened in DC, I'll point out that the extent to which it focuses on the historicity or scientific accuracy that the texts can be made to have it misses the entire point of the Books of the Bible.   I'd say the same thing is even more obvious in the "creation museums" and displays that are a more obviously vulgar business venture only different in detail and academic participation and not in kind.  There is no more cluelessly non-self aware venture than the fundamentalist reading of these texts, no claim more ignorantly aware of its self-defeating use of the same methods of reading the Bible that modern atheism uses to discredit the God so credibly presented in a non-literal, non-fundamentalist reading of these texts. 

Read the book, read the texts cited, think about what Brueggemann says, read other such authors and do his exercises at the ends of the chapters, the museum admissions will get you a few hours of looking at artifacts and exhibits, that's not the point of the Bible.  Neither is "teaching it as literature".  Considering it as you would a novel or story book so you can write a paper and take tests and get a grade or make allusions to it in witty writing is as certain a way of not understanding it.  It might be worse than a fundamentalist reading of it, no wonder Dawkins claims to advocate that.


  1. I just finished reading a long discourse on how MLK's civil rights position was all political, along with a convoluted analysis of how his anti-poverty positions and economics we're from the political positions. All this excruciating long analysis and I kept looking for any mention that his radicalism was biblically based. None. Even a light reading of someone like Brueggemann however makes it all so obvious and understandable.

    On a different note, my Bernie loving relatives are already filling their Facebook feeds with diatribes that the evil establishment Democrats are going after Chelsea Manning. We truly will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with such idiocy. Has there ever been a less effective group than Bernie and his crowd (Greens, etc.).

    1. Charles Pierce wrote today about how MLK had been transformed into an ineffective cartoon of the real person. I think that what you read isn't unlike that. Anyone who could make any claims about him without noting that by profession and by what he professed, that his thinking was motivated by his religion is doing the same thing.

      There are lots of people who I think should have had their sentences commuted or pardoned but the idea that getting one for giving classified information to a Putin crime family front which, reportedly, may have gotten sources killed qualifies them to be a member of the Senate is literally crazy talk.

      Bernie Sanders isn't even a Democrat and the Greens have been far more anti-Democratic than they have been pro-Green (or they might actually get people elected to school boards and municipal councils). I think that Democrats should change their party affiliation, take over the Greens and dissolve it.

      There's a law that the Sec of State in Maine (a Democrat) has suggested to make it illegal to collect petition signatures at polls, which at one time I'd have been against but after this last election cycle and the part that such signature gathering has played in producing Trump, I'm not exactly supportive of the change in law but I'm a lot warmer to it than I once would have been.

  2. King became a plaster saint after his death, not in his lifetime. I was reading Dan Rather's comments on his reaction to King's anti-war sermon at Riverside Church. We forget he lost WaPo with that one, too. Rather remembered cringing at the time, thinking King had gone too far. A lot of people felt the same way.

    Those people also thought (and still think) the "Letter" was addressed to someone else. You can't read that letter and not understand King was a committed Christian pastor. You can't pay attention to most of what he did without realizing that.

    Then there was the article I came across today, arguing King was a "conservative militant." Well, compared to James Baldwin or Malcolm X, I guess he was. Then again, King addressed social and economic injustice his entire public career, and all we want to remember is that he had a dream. We don't even remember what that march in '63 was about; it wasn't, as a PBS special said the other day, about "freedom."

    Freedom we "gave" 'em; economic justice? Ain't that socialism? In King's day "race-mixing" was considered communism (no, seriously). Now we allow it, encourage it, ignore it; and we're no closer to King's dream than we were in '63. But wasn't it a nice speech?

    1. I've come to believe the real radicalism is the radicalism that sets the goal on an attainable change for the better in real life.

      I wonder if the resurgence we see in racism isn't related to the unwillingness to have economic equality, the promotion of racism on cable TV and hate talk radio are certainly fueled by billionaire and millionaire money, a tool for them to put their servants into the Congress, the presidency and on the Courts to do their bidding. The same strategy of economic and political domination was used throughout American history from the time of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, really from the time wealthier had people of other races to divide and conquer by giving poor whites someone they could look down on. The British class system is based on something similar, I think it's the most common strategy of the rich and powerful to control societies.

      I think King's idea of the Beloved Community was an articulation of the Kingdom of God and there's nothing more radical than that. The damage done to socialism by the atheist (highbrow materialist) hijacking of the idea was a good example of how materialism, high or low brow, is deadly to egalitarian democracy. One of the most disappointing things I ever heard from Barney Frank was when he endorsed the inequality that capitalism requires and maintains. It literally would eventually negate any of his other egalitarian goals, when the Supreme Court, at the behest of the "liberal" ACLU, the "liberal" media, turns money into "speech" and allows billionaires to dominate the media and distort reality, it only goes to show what happens when there is economic inequality. There is nothing ideological about the resurgence of Nazism and fascism, it's a product of advertising and propaganda on behalf of the billionaire oligarchs.

    2. Equality is still radical, and "Money Talks" is still as American as cherry pie.